Prof. Tran Van Khe, the greatest master of traditional Vietnamese music, to talk to Culture Vulture about the future of Don ca tai tu, which was listed early this month as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Khe said the UN recognition should be a sign to youth to not neglect this important cultural heritage of the south.
How did you feel upon hearing the news that Don ca tai tu had been recognised by UNESCO?
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The information came to me on December 5. Just one hour after than, several of my students sent emails to me and confirmed the news. I could not have been happier.
Do you think that Don ca tai tu has sufficient historical background for such a qualification?
In the past, any type of art had to have enough historical and art value to be recognised. Recently, the designation now looks at the value of the art and its interest from the public. Tai tu music is quite capable of reaching this standard and status.
Tai Tu music was adopted, performed and practised by the community, so it has enough value to be honoured, because it has deep and profound artistic value. It is an honour for Viet Nam to have this art form recognised and valued.
In the past, the music was performed and listened to by southerners. Later, it became popular in the central and northern regions. But the popularity was in Viet Nam only. It then spread to some other countries, especially in the Vietnamese communities there. Now foreigners also listen and understand the value of the music.
It took years for Don ca tai tu for this recognition. What was the process and how was it understood by the world?
The recognition came as a result of Tai tu music being adopted gradually by the international community. In 1972, Master Vinh Bao’s performance, together with mine for OCORA discs was recorded in Paris. Later the disc was welcomed enthusiastically by the international community. UNESCO sent representatives to meet me to discuss producing a UNESCO-branded record.
In 1973 and 1974, UNESCO unofficially recognised Tai tu music’s value when they recorded a performance by Vinh Bao and me. Then in 1994, the UNESCO record, on which I and musician Vinh Bao performed, was put on compact disc (CD) and it became a bestseller in Europe.
That means not only do musical experts like Tai tu music, but also ordinary people who have no knowledge of Eastern traditional music. Indirectly, the public “voted” for Vietnamese Tai tu music for its interesting artistic value. With official recognition, the world will now pay much more attention to Tai tu music.
I hope that Vietnamese will be startled by this news. I hope that it will make them think about why foreigners see great value about their nation’s traditional arts. The recognition will benefit the music’s development.
You introduced Tai tu music to UNESCO in 1963. Can you speak about that?
At the time, UNESCO wanted to produce a collection of the best music from countries outside Europe. I presented some music pieces sung by artist Bach Hue and musically accompanied by an ensemble including musician Sau Tung, her father. All of the music pieces were accepted. It was later in 1963 that the disc was popularised worldwide.
Before me, renowned musician Nguyen Tong Trieu and his music group were invited to perform in Marseille in 1900.
The music first appeared as an entertainment art form for people in southern Viet Nam. The music was taught to southerners by court musicians from Hue (the central region of Viet Nam). But southerners acquired and played the music in their own manner and style.
It is undeniable that many Vietnamese young people do not like Don ca tai tu. What is your opinion? Do you hope that recognition will revive the music among local youth?
I hope that it will make them more aware that they have forgotten their nation’s valuable traditional arts. Young people’s neglect of traditional music is like a “chronic disease”. I have written an article about this, titled Can Benh Man Tinh cua Am Nhac Truyen Thong Viet Nam (Chronic “Disease” of Vietnamese Traditional Music) on Google and rediffusued by 28 electronic papers.
During certain periods of history, the atmosphere was not conducive to music making. During the years Viet Nam was colonised by French, Tai tu music was not banned but it was not promoted. In contrast, Western culture was popularised among Vietnamese.
Later, when Viet Nam fell into war, no type of music was developed or played. Everybody’s attention was directed at fighting. When the war ended in 1975, the country was poor, so few people had time for entertainment. That was when people tried to have enough rice and clothes. The country’s situation made young people turn their back on Don ca tai tu.
Now, the better economy is causing youth to ignore Tai tu music. Learning the traditional music is not easy, and young people can earn only a small amount of money for each performance. If they play Western music, they can get a much better salary.
Finally, there is the element of psychology. Young people who learn Tai tu music think that they are not so talented as others who play modern music.
They try to hide their traditional musical instruments, while trying to show their Western-style violin for everyone to see. All of these factors force local youth to neglect Tai tu music and run after contemporary music.
Has Tai tu music’s development been influenced by globalisation?
The situation has become worse as a great part of Vietnamese youth follow South Korean and other foreign music. When Korean stars arrive, most youth of the entire country want to greet them and are ready to buy tickets of VND200,000 to VND1 million (US$10-50).
It is totally different with a traditional music programme prepared by renowned artists. Six-hundred free tickets were delivered, and finally only 200 people came. Globalisation has contributed to the love of foreign music and abandonment of Tai tu music.
But we are lucky that a small percentage of Vietnamese youth still love Tai tu music. They know the value of the music.
The music is also being used commercially on the stage for tourism purposes. Do you agree with this trend?
Bringing Tai tu to the stage and performing it for tourism should not be encouraged. Initially, artists played the music not for money in their communities. The music should be played in an unofficial place with all the musicians’ passion and joy.
Now, the music is used in the tourism industry but foreign tourists cannot understand it after listening to it in a short period of time. This activity will further degrade the music quality. In tourism, the performers play the music for money. Don’t turn Tai tu music into a stage art and a commodity to sell for money.
Tai tu music has been around for more than 100 years. You are now 92. Your life is closely attached with the ups and downs of music. Do you remember the first time you heard Tai tu music?
When I was still in the womb, my uncle played the flute for me. When I was born, my uncle again played the flute and my grandfather played ty ba (pear-shaped lute) to greet me. All of people in my family played Tai tu music. When I was about to stand on my feet, I jumped up under the rhythm of my grandfather’s traditional music.
I have conducted research on all types of Asian and Vietnamese traditional music, not only Tai tu music. When I lived in other countries, I often used Tai tu music to introduce foreigners to traditional Vietnamese music. — VNS